"We all have agency. But the piece that we can’t underestimate is the profound role unjust socialization processes play in self-identity and in decision-making."
Seth Green is Executive Director of Y.O.U., Youth & Opportunity United, an Evanston-based youth development agency that serves 1,500 young people, from rising third graders through young adulthood, every year. Y.O.U does not seek to “fix broken kids.” Instead, the agency’s goal is that “all young people have what all young people need.” The agency’s central philosophy is Positive Youth Development—a holistic approach based on the belief that all young people need a wide range of “assets” in their lives: relationships and support; empowerment and safety; boundaries and expectations; constructive use of time; commitment to learning; positive values; social competencies; and a positive identity.
Currently located on Sherman Avenue, Y.O.U. recently broke ground opposite Evanston Township High School and will open a new, state-of-the-art building in December.
Nina Kavin spoke to Seth about Y.O.U.’s work, and the issue of youth violence in our community.
DE: How do young people become involved with Y.O.U?
SG: Many kids come to us because a social worker or teacher at their school has identified that child as having great assets and potential but also an unmet social, emotional, or academic need. Summer is our biggest moment, where youth spend up to seven hours a day in our program, and become immersed in experiential learning.
During the year, they spend up to three hours a day with us after school. We provide a consistent support network, but we also encourage the child’s integration with all the other resources in our community, like school clubs and community opportunities. For high schoolers, we weave ourselves into the existing infrastructure and provide a unique support that is integrated into ETHS’ universe of opportunities. So kids sometimes start with a higher involvement in our services in elementary and gradually become united with many other opportunities in our community as they get older.
DE: How do families connect with Y.O.U?
SG: School social workers often come to us initially, especially in the case of higher-need families. Then we get in touch with the parent or caregiver. We’ll even do home visits. We have a very diverse, passionate staff of relationship-builders and we’re valued by social workers because we can sometimes connect with families in ways that schools can’t. We have the benefit of not having to grade kids and we have greater flexibility than the schools in what we want to achieve, so we can deeply engage families in ways that complement the school.
DE: Do you have a presence in all the schools?
SG: No. We are only in federally designated Title 1 schools, which serve high percentages of youth who are on free or reduced lunch. So, here in Evanston, we’re in Dawes, Walker, Washington, Oakton, Nichols, Chute and King Arts for fifth through eighth grade.
DE: Do kids in our community have enough resources to serve their needs and keep out of trouble?
SG: We’re a theoretically resource-rich community. I say theoretically, because it’s much easier to see the resources that are available than the gaps. We have an incredible public library, recreation facilities, the amazing MetaMedia center at the McGaw YMCA, Family Focus, a great university with scholarships, and more. So there’s resource-richness in terms of our community’s assets, but what’s not apparent is that the resources don’t match perfectly the needs of children—and they don’t fill all the needs of all children.
In many ways, parents are still expected to serve as a GPS system for our kids, weaving the universe of things our kids need together, and in some cases providing them extra support when a barrier in their life might prevent them from connecting to resources. But many parents in our community are single parents with multiple jobs who don’t have the same time availability or education as higher-income parents because they weren't given the same opportunities.
We can be a resource-rich community, but not be accessible to a lot of families. So kids can be missing resources that are seemingly available because there’s a disconnect between their lives and the resources. At Y.O.U., we see ourselves as partnering with caregivers in helping to build a GPS system to connect families with this community’s resources. We have clinicians and case managers and we have a low child-to-staff ratio so we can be really involved in their lives.
DE: What comes to your mind when a young person in our community is shot?
SG: My sadness is that the victims in our community are almost always young black men, and there’s a deep injustice of living in a society and community where as a white person you can have violence at this level and still not feel personally threatened. That’s a sad statement, because nothing about my identity should be so important that it allows me to be free of the tragedies in our community.
DE: Do you worry about being the victim of violence in Evanston?
SG: No. I feel great empathy for people who are affected by violence, but I don’t have anxiety about being shot. That’s really sad. In a just society we should either all feel anxiety about being shot or, much better, none of us should fear it. It shouldn't be as predictable about where this violence happens.
DE: What do you think causes this kind of violence in our community?
SG: The sociologist Pedro Noguera, who recently spoke at ETHS, says that the wealth gap between blacks and whites in the United States today is 18:1. In South Africa, during apartheid, it was 15:1. He pairs this with the even more tragic fact that the mobility rates in the U.S. are lower than any other industrialized country. So we have not only great inequity, which in some ways is more tolerable if you believe that there is mobility, but we have combination of the greatest inequality and the least mobility.
What’s especially difficult about this reality is that many people who are currently in middle and upper income households actually did come from families with lower-income backgrounds and so they may have an outsized belief about mobility because of lived experience. My grandfather grew up in poverty. My grandmother spent part of her childhood in an orphanage. I heard their stories all through my childhood—how hard they worked to put my family in a better position. That’s the framework that shaped my initial understanding of the world. And it’s tough to come to grips with two facts. First, that mobility has never fully existed for a large part of our country because of institutionalized racism. And second, that our mobility curve, which has always been imperfect, has actually gotten much worse in recent decades.
One reason for the latter trend is the growing importance of education for jobs and careers. So my grandfather, who hardly had a high-school education, was able to ultimately own and run a business, take out loans, things you’d never have a chance to do without a more advanced education today. There’s a lot more need for out-of-school learning today and the educational system has become much more barriered because of that. The hours kids spend in out-of-school learning drives at least half of the predictability of a child’s achievement and success at school.
From 1970 to today looks totally different in this regard. The average parent today in the upper third income level invests $5,000 more incremental dollars in out-of-school learning than in 1970. Lower-income families invest $480 more per child than in 1970. So while all parents are investing more, upper-income families have accelerated their investments 11 times faster than lower-income families.
There’s also the time kids spend reading and learning with their parents. That’s higher in higher-income families than in lower-income families. Despite caring just as much, these families don’t have the same time. Lower-income parents are more likely to have multiple jobs and the family structure has become more one-parent over the last several decades making parent hours available to a child lower.
The sheer magnitude of all these issues has meant mobility is in a very different place than just a few decades ago and so our impressions of mobility often do not match reality.
Our framework has always been, if you work hard you will be successful. The piece that’s missed is that lots of people who are left behind also have merit and also work hard, but they just haven’t had and don’t have the same opportunity. And lack of jobs, lack of hope, and lack of opportunity is a successful recipe for kids trying to find that kind belonging in gangs.
Every time we see this kind of violence, we all bear responsibility in thinking about the role that we play in allowing a violent and unequal history to be replicated and about how little we’ve done as a country to take seriously the inequities that exist. The way opportunities are allocated in our country, we’re constantly replicating a history we don’t believe in, and in the process, we’re creating communities where violence and other tragedies we don’t believe in are all the more possible.
DE: Do you think that some under-resourced kids just 'make it' and others just don’t?
A: We all have agency. But the piece that we can’t underestimate is the profound role unjust socialization processes play in self-identity and in decision-making. Just think of the mug shots we put out across the community on a regular basis of someone who is alleged to have committed a crime. They are disproportionately of young black males and they tell our young men that they are not worthy. We do that in a way that’s so harmful. I’m sure my daughters start with similar kinds of vulnerabilities as any other kid in the community, but they’ll grow up with a million images of white women who have a bright future and they’ll be told over and over again that their lives are important and that if they make good decisions, things will work out. They’ll have good reasons to make good decisions.
Yes, a lot of a person’s success is internally driven. But the opportunities and the environment around you make pivotal differences in your life outcomes.
DE: Do you think jobs are a deterrence from violence?
SG: At Y.O.U., we’re big believers in the power of jobs. It’s outside the scope of our work, but the City of Evanston has an incredible summer employment program and the Youth Job Center is a regionally recognized leader in job training. A lot of our kids participate in those programs and they come back more motivated and aspirational about their futures because of these summer and internship experiences. The power of jobs to motivate kids, spark their imagination, and give them confidence and hope is incredible. If kids have aspirations for their futures, they make much better decisions. Bad decisions are made when kids don’t know where they’re headed.
DE: What happened to kids like Bo Bradford, Antonio Johnson, and Star Paramore?
SG: I don’t know. Every story is unique. I think it’s a challenge to diagnose individual cases. There are so many complex, interrelated factors. What we can diagnose is the systemic injustice. There’s a million ways these deaths didn’t have to happen the way they did. It’s very tough to predict the negative outcome in particular, but the systemic issue is if you’re a young black male in our community, because of the gross injustices in our community that haven’t been addressed, you’re at greater risk at violence and death.
DE: Do you think Evanston has enough outreach workers?
SG: The City of Evanston’s outreach team is the best team on earth. They do an incredible job. I’m amazed by their courage, their impact, their deep relationships in the community. I think that of all the great things our City does, the outreach team is the greatest of all those things. On a personal level, my family is proud to live in Evanston because our community invests pro-actively in programs like this. This team is the ultimate sign that our community understands that the long-term solution to violence is building relationships and expanding opportunity.
DE: I’ve heard concerns that the new Y.O.U. building may eclipse some of the older, historic Fifth Ward organizations like Family Focus and Fleetwood-Jourdain.
SG: We have a close partnership with Family Focus and we’re looking forward to deepening this partnership as we move our building to the Fifth Ward. We are deep in conversation with Colette Allen, the head of Family Focus. We’re making sure everything we do is complementary and mutually reinforcing to the services they provide. We similarly see Fleetwood as an incredible city resource and partner. Our services will be entirely intended to complement, not eclipse, any of theirs. So we’re excited about the potential to work together and add our resources alongside theirs and we have highly collaborative and supportive relationships with both institutions.